It has been a long time in planning and construction, but after more than 22 years, the Down East Sunrise Trail is officially completed — at least for now.

The trail connects snowmobile trails in Hancock and Washington counties to other parts of Maine. It offers quality east-west snowmobile trails in the region along coastal areas, including some scenic loop trails. People who live in Ellsworth can be on a great trail in less than five minutes of travel.

The trail, formerly known as the Calais Branch Rail Corridor, runs from Washington Junction in Hancock (just outside Ellsworth) to Ayers Junction in Pembroke.

More than two decades ago, the Maine Department of Conservation got a permit to use the abandoned rail bed trail from the Department of Transportation. At 87 miles, it is the longest single rail trail in Maine and is available for multiple uses.

Much work had to be done on the trail to make it usable. An assessment in 2007 revealed that 28 bridges needed to be repaired or replaced, and there were 57 washouts occurring because of failing culverts, lack of maintenance and areas flooded by beavers building dams.

The project has met more than its fair share of challenges. There was opposition to the trail from railroad enthusiasts who wanted to bring the train system back. However, the old rails and bridges couldn’t support new trains. An agreement was reached that allowed the rail bed to be preserved in the event that someday rail business could return to the line, depending on need and the economic situation.

As part of the agreement, the old rails and ties were removed, the rail bed was built to railroad standards and culverts were repaired so the rail bed wouldn’t wash out.

The trail may be used by snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, ATV riders, pedestrians, bicyclists, equestrians and others.

It passes some of most beautiful scenery in Hancock and Washington counties, including saltwater marshes, mountains and coastal inlets.

It crosses several large rivers, including the Dennys, East Machias and Machias.

“It is an incredible ride and the variety of scenery is amazing. You can go from thick forests and it will open up into big bog areas and there are mountains right along the trail as well,” said Joe McPhail, president of the Dennysville Snowmobile and ATV Club, which grooms 19 miles of the trail in the winter. “We’ve seen wildlife including deer, turkeys, partridge, fox and eagles.”

Improvements on the trail cost roughly $59,000 per mile — a total of about $5 million. And there are plans to extend it two more miles into Ellsworth.

Now that the rails and ties are gone, the snowmobile season can be extended by up to two months, depending on snow conditions.

Previously, there had to be quite a bit of snow covering the rails and ties for snowmobilers to ride safely. Now there is just a gravel bed.

Snowmobile clubs in Hancock and Washington counties have been working on creating new local trails that lead to the Down East Sunrise Trail.

“We have made some new trails on this end of the Sunrise Trail to be able to access some of our local businesses in Pembroke and Dennysville, such as restaurants and gas stations,” said McPhail. “We even have one man who owns log cabins and rents them out for snowmobilers to stay in. We continue to work on developing new trails all the time. It has already been a big economic boon for the area, with a lot of people coming in to ride the trail.”

Groups are working on improving the trail by putting up picnic tables, outhouses, signs, kiosks and trash cans. And there are several maintained parking lots providing easy access to the trail.

Cathy Genthner is a registered Maine Guide and is licensed to guide snowmobile trips. She is the owner of River Bluff Camps in Medford, located off ITS-83. She can be reached at:

[email protected]